Understanding Survey Fatigue in a Community Context

Written by: Scott Hoke & Kerrie Baker

The year 2020 presents a unique opportunity to have the voice of the community heard through national census survey, an opportunity that occurs once every 10 years.  It seems only fitting that we take this opportunity to also highlight the roll of survey efforts in community development work. Surveys have become a part of our culture. People often do not realize how frequently they are exposed to survey research. Many consumers purchase large and small items that come with information cards that ask for details about who purchased the item so the organization can learn more about its consumer base. Many governments, large and small, use surveys to learn more about their constituents; schools use this type of tool to learn about the needs of families; and hospitals use surveys to learn more about a patient’s experience with the healthcare system. 

Surveys serve as an important avenue to collect feedback from various populations.  They provide a mechanism to gather large amounts of information quickly, upon which leaders can then make decisions and changes to address specific concerns. The ability to make informed decisions is important to many members of the community because it can result in changes to local policies and practices that improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.   

In practice, surveys should have a clear purpose or goal. The questions in the survey should be focused around a particular issue or theme, which the survey providers then hope they will be able to use to apply the findings to their understanding of the larger population that survey respondents represent. The problem lies when several groups or constituencies wish to measure the same or overlapping issues from their different vantage points, leading to multiple solicitations for feedback from the same group of people.  If multiple surveys result in small numbers of responses, then none of the survey results will be generalizable to and representative of the larger target population.

Such repeated requests for input may occur simultaneously or within a very short time frame of one another, which can lead to a term called survey fatigue. To put this in perspective, let’s say we want to learn more about how the development in center city Allentown has affected the residents and employees of that area. If we do not coordinate the effort to learn more about the attitudes and opinions of those residents, it is possible that they will be asked to participate in multiple surveys, sponsored by different entities, in a relatively short period of time.   Individuals may feel that they are having to repeat their answers frequently or may lose interest in completing the different surveys.

What Is Survey Fatigue?

Survey fatigue is a problem that occurs when survey respondents become bored, tired or uninterested in the survey and begin to perform at a substandard level. There are two types of survey fatigue, which are identified in the call out box to the left.

The Impact of Survey Fatigue

Survey fatigue has the power to waste a considerable amount of money and time, since organizations may be paying for surveys that are disregarded or filled out carelessly.  Historically, some types of surveys methods have lower response rates than others so creating a survey method or design that is intended to encourage participation is important when attempting to generalize the results. In addition, survey fatigue may also result in the consequences identified in the call out box to the right.

Maximizing Strategic Impact of Surveys

Survey fatigue can be planned for, and strategies can be employed that minimize the likelihood that it will occur. There is no hard and fast rule about how often to distribute surveys as it is dependent of the reason for the survey.  The frequency you send a survey depends entirely on the types of questions being asked, the number of questions, and to the target population.  In the end, we need to be aware of the amount of effort we are requiring from those who we are asking to participate.

Conclusions: Simplicity is key

If you want to steer far away from survey fatigue and ensure that your outreach efforts are not compromised by inaccurate or biased data, the tips presented below will help you reduce its effects. In the end, it is important to keep in mind that with respect to surveys, simplicity is often the key. Over-complicating the process or the survey can create the opportunity for poor results. And, if at all possible, think collaboratively. Try to combine resources with other civic or non-profit organizations and create a survey process or design that meets the needs of several rather than just one.

1 Backor, K., Golde, S., & Nie, N. (September, 2007). Estimating Survey Fatigue in Time Use Study. Retrieved from: http://www.atususers.umd.edu/wip2/papers_i2007/Backor.pdf

2 Porter, S., Whitcomb, M., & Weitzer, W. (2004). Multiple surveys of students and survey fatigue. New Directions for Institutional Research, 121, 63-73.

Dr. Scott Hoke is an Associate of Professor of Criminal Justice and the Director of the Master of Science in Crime Science Program at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Kerrie Baker is a Professor of Psychology at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.